Thursday 3 September 2009

St Valentine or Juno?

As we all know the early Christian church grafted many of its feast days on to pre-existing pagan festivals, Christmas being the chief case in point. I was told by someone, I can’t remember who, that St Valentine’s Day is actually the festival of Juno. I suppose it makes sense: after all why would a Christian martyr, of whom almost nothing is known, be associated with a pagan-like celebration of love? The matter, however, is not quite as simple as I was led to suppose.

The Romans celebrated Lupercalia in mid-February, a pastoral festival associate with purification and fertility rather than love as such. The chief deity invoked was Lupercus, sometimes identified with Faunus, the Roman equivalent to the Great God Pan. Yes, fertility and a degree of excess, as Plutarch depicts;

Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

The other festival associated with this period, and the one to which I was guided, is that of Juno Februata, during which boys are supposed to have drawn girls names from a box in honour of the Goddess. Christians then took to substituting the names of saints. But this conjecture is traceable only to The Lives of the Saints, the work of the seventeenth century hagiographer and priest, Alban Butler. It was subsequently embellished by Francis Douce in Illustrations of Shakespeare, who supplies Valentine as the favoured name. Thus was the connection established, and thus it has been maintained. It’s no more than a romantic fiction!


  1. This list is endless! Diana’s festival, too, was ousted by the Christian church into the festival of the Assumption of the virgin on August 15. Mary suckled the infant Christ much the same way as Isis is seen to suckle Horus whom many an ignorant Christian have mistaken for the Madonna and worshipped. (See Frazer’s chapter on ‘The hanged God’ in The Golden Bough)

    The Roman festival of shepherds, known as the Parilia was replaced by the festival of St George of the dragon in April.

    Similarly, what better way to duplicate the water feast into the festival of St John the Baptist on 23 June? St Augustine denounced and forbade this festival, condemning it as a heathen practice. Frazer goes on to write

    We may conjecture that the church, unable to put down this relic of Paganism, followed its usual policy of accommodation by bestowing on the rite a Christian name and acquiescing, with a sigh, in its observance. And casting about for a saint to supplant a heathen patron of bathing, the Christian doctors could hardly have hit upon a more appropriate successor than St John the Baptist.

  2. That's super, Rehan; many thanks. I'm sure you know the story of the Silversmith's Riot. Well, when I was in Ephesus, in the amphitheatre, I shouted out "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." People looked at me as if I had gone mad. :-))